This section contains 1,766 words
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Critical Essay by Ray Conlogue
SOURCE: "Mixing Spirits, Bingo and Genius," in The Globe and Mail, Toronto, November 21, 1987, p. C5.
In the following excerpt, Conlogue discusses The Rez Sisters within the context of Highway's life and culture.
Tomson Highway has long black hair, worn straight and loose. There is no mistaking that he is a native person—he will even call himself an Indian, but the word is tongue-in-cheek nowadays—and his commitment to his heritage is profound. That much he has shown in a play called The Rez Sisters, which came out of nowhere last year to win the Dora award for best play.
The Rez Sisters is being remounted by Toronto's Factory Theatre. That's why, this particular afternoon, Highway is found sitting at the piano in the Factory Theatre's green room, basking in late autumn sunshine. He may have just happened to be there, but the image has the composed quality of an artist mindful of such things. In either case, it is dramatic: a black glossy piano and a black glossy mane of hair.
Highway embodies the customary contradictions of living in two worlds at once, native and white, but he embodies them with special intensity because, simply put, he is outrageously talented. He grew up speaking Cree, not learning English until his teens—but he speaks it now with a fluid and untrammelled eloquence. And although as a child on a Manitoba reserve, he witnessed privation and brutality of every kind, he exudes a startling serenity.
"Indisputably bad things happened to my people," he says. "But it's water under the bridge. Now we have to deal with it, cure it."
Highway, who is 28 years old, is deeply attached to the spirituality of his people. Their religion was badly battered by the traders and missionaries and battered worse by the move off the reserves to the white cities. But it survives nonetheless, and it underlies The Rez Sisters.
The play is set on Manitoulin Island in Georgian Bay, which is a long way from Highway's home on a reserve in northern Manitoba. But it is a place he knows well; he moved there to start a theatre company after graduating from Western University.
One of the things that struck him, after having lived some years in the big white cities, was the way people in isolated communities give a mythical quality to their own lives. "Even in a few years, certain people's adventures become legends. Near where I lived on Manitoulin, there had been a lady who played bingo with such ferocity that she became the queen of bingo. She's dead now, but her spirit still hovers over the bingo hall." He smiles. He is not sanctimonious about these things. "It's a neat way of making your life more fun than it might have been."
Out of such stories, and the sense of fun underlying native culture—an idea he returns to frequently—Highway began to fashion the story of seven women on this reserve. The story focuses on a huge bingo game they have heard of, which is going to take place in Toronto. They set off on an epic journey to the Big City, which none of them has seen before. On their journey they are accompanied by a seagull, played by an actor; the bird embodies Nanabush, the trickster spirit at the core of native religion.
As the play develops, the story pushes out in several directions. Only two of the women can actually see the magical bird, one of them being a retarded girl who has suffered terrible abuse in her life.
"This trickster is so central to our system of spiritual belief," says Highway. "It's a connection to this great energy, or God, which most people perceive only in moments of extreme crisis. Or when they are close to death, and can see into the spirit world."
In the case of the retarded young woman, he was thinking of a true story of a girl from his home reserve who was raped by several white men on a backwoods road. She was retarded, but, to make doubly sure of not being identified, they beat her and gouged out her eyes. They needn't have troubled—she froze to death before she was found.
In recounting this story, Highway's customary serenity and composure cracks somewhat. There is a terrible anger as he states quietly that the white men, who were known, have never to this day been prosecuted. "The racism is real. And the sexism. Men are here"—he gestures—"and women are here, and Indian women are here." His hand hovers near the floor.
Then he leaps imaginatively back into the world of the play, of the thoughts that this terrible story inspired. "I began to imagine that when the girl is lying there in the snow, the seagull comes to her. In my version, in the play, she doesn't die. The bird says, 'Not yet.'"
And that is the young woman, gifted with second sight, who accompanies the group to Toronto.
People who have seen the play are struck by Highway's extraordinary empathy with women.
"I am sensitive to women because of the matrilineal principle in our culture, which has gone on for thousands of years. Women have such an ability to express themselves emotionally. Men are all clogged up. And as a writer, you want to express emotion."
As a writer, especially in the theatre, you also want to work in a tradition. Highway's knowledge of theatre comes from his studies at Western University, where he met and was deeply influenced by James Reaney. "Seeing the Donnelly Trilogy was one of the great moments for me. With those characters, the mother and father of the Donnelly clan, James Reaney is putting down roots. They become characters that remind me of Mother Earth and Father Sky in our stories."
The Donnellys were real people, but folklore gave them a great dimension, which Reaney incorporated into his play. "I love folklore," says Highway. "How stories go from mouth to mouth and the figures become huge and heroic."
At university, he also familiarized himself with Western theatre, and the influences are interesting to notice. In The Rez Sisters, one of the women continually repeats that she "wants to go to Toronto." Is there Chekhov in this?
Highway laughs. "Oh sure, there is The Three Sisters in there, and a little bit of Michel Tremblay's Les Belles Soeurs."
He is open to such influences, but they never dominate in his play. "People often tell me when they see the play, even if it is in English, that these are not French women or English women, but Indian women who are speaking."
One very good reason for that is that Highway writes his plays in Cree before he writes them in English. "It's hard for native writers to write in a language that isn't theirs. I wasn't fluent in English till my late teens. So my dream life is in Cree. And so are my first drafts."
Highway is fond of the explosive nicknames that exist in his culture, which often become permanent names. "Names like Shot on Both Sides, or One Foot in Hell. Or Highway.
"I'm a full-blooded Cree. Nobody knows where my name comes from. It may be an Irish name, borrowed from an early trader."
This also accounts for the names of the characters in the play—such as Emily Dictionary. "My home reserve is half Cree and half Chipewyan. There was a Chipewyan family with a name we couldn't pronounce, so we changed it to the nearest thing: Dictionary."
The eternal play on words and ideas is part of what makes Cree "such a funny language. You laugh all the time when you speak it. In spite of the violence on the reserve, the rhythm of the language is funny. It must have something to do with the Trickster being at the centre of it."
It is difficult for whites to understand how a deity called the Trickster could be central to any culture—one of the perennial problems between natives and whites. Highway tries to clarify it by comparing the Trickster to Christ. "He occupies a central role for us, just as Christ does for you. But there are three important differences. Trickster has a sense of humor. He was never crucified. And he is neither male nor female."
By the absurd construction of having to say that he is neither male nor female, Highway underlines the inadequacy of the English language to describe reality as seen by a native.
But at the same time, the otherness of the native view of the world has survived immersion in white culture. "The missionaries think that they killed off the Trickster," says Highway, "but we don't think so. To my mind, the Trickster has been passed under the table for 200 years. Those guys in Hastings Street (Vancouver's skid row) who have been drunk for 25 years—you see the Trickster in them, clawing to come back to life."
In the face of so much human destruction and tragedy, it is tempting to see something Pollyanna-ish in Highway's optimism. But it is not like that to him. He is well aware of the destruction—"the Indian you meet is a drunk, and the reserves are full of inner-directed rage and violence"—but he does not see why this should lead the observer to lose sight of the other side of native reality.
"Our mythology is strong. Our dream world is filled with the most extraordinary creatures. Freud and Jung would have had a holiday travelling in Manitoba. And these dreams are relevant to the way this country breathes."
Highway's personal salvation comes largely from his father. "My dad has a unique charismatic personality. Just by his example, we wanted to do well by him. So we took what he taught us tacitly: that you take the most positive aspect of your culture and do what you can with it. So my brother is a dancer and I am a writer."
When The Rez Sisters opened last year in Toronto, it was overlooked by most of the media. It was presented in the Native Canadian Centre, which nobody had been to before, and it ran very briefly on slim funding.
But the few people who saw it were passionately committed to the show. They threw all their votes into it for the Chalmers Award last year and helped it to win the Dora for best new play.
For Tomson Highway, this was a vindication of his own talent, and of the people who inspired and performed the play. "It was a thrill to be nominated for a Dora beside people like Margaret Hollingsworth, whose writing had electrified my imagination."
So the Rez Sisters made it to Toronto after all, and won the biggest bingo game of all.
This section contains 1,766 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)